The Reverend Kathleen Damewood Korb

Unitarian Universalist Congregation of Greater Naples



It has become so much a part of the way we think about the world that it is only sel­dom that we may recognize the influence and power of the Existentialist philosophy which was at its height about thirty-five years ago, but which still in­forms much of our thought. You never really hear about it any more. The great Existentialist writ­ers are dead, and their philosophy is hardly mentioned by name. Nevertheless it is pervasive in our think­ing. It is summed up in the often-heard statement that we create our own mean­ing.

There is a tendency to want to believe that all religions are at their essential core the same. We point to the incidence of what in Christianity is called the Golden Rule, and because we find it in two or three others we cite this as proof. In reality, of course, there are profound differences, but the one thing that they do share is their reason for existence. They are about the establishment of human purpose in the world — the meaning of human life.

We tend not to realize that the indi­vidual’s quest for meaning is, at least in western thought, essentially a modern activity. It’s not that meaningfulness was ever unim­portant, but it was something of a given. Our purpose and place in the world was something that we learned about in childhood, and though some might rebel, that in itself had sufficient inherent meaning to carry the individual through without the sometimes agonizing questions of why we exist. We could be­lieve that we were created for a purpose, and we could either accept the purpose as it was given to us by parents, teachers and priests, we could attempt to figure it out for ourselves, or we could simply leave it in the hands of the creator. If we were created, it must be for some good and transcendent reason.

For the existentialists, partly as a re­sponse to the horrors of Nazism, partly to the findings of science, purpose and meaning were no longer a given. Since it seemed we were not created, but evolved like the other animals, and since it be­came clear that our behavior could sometimes be worse than that of the fiercest beasts, such questions became central. In theory, if those understandings are true, it ought not be necessary even to bother with whether or not life is meaningful. We could just do what highly evolved animals do, adjusting where we must to social needs and sur­viving as individuals and species as na­ture demands. There is as little problem with that answer as with the answers of special creation. You live by the chance of evolu­tion, and you get what you can out of it before you die. The bumper sticker that I saw some years ago on a De Lorean summed it up: “The one who dies with the most toys wins.”

Most people, at least the ones I know, sense that there must be more to it than that. Can a creature that creates or­nate mathematical structures, learns to fly without having wings, builds towers as high as hills and bridges with sweeping curves of beauty, writes symphonies and calculates the orbits of the planets be without pur­pose? Can the life of a crea­ture who understands the concept of jus­tice, who feels mercy and compassion, who writes hymns of glory to the highest we can imagine, be meaningless? What is the meaning of a star or of the life of a butterfly or a ty­phoid bacillus or a rose? Surely the existentialists must have been right. The only meaning available to us is that which we create.

There are even human lives, I think, which are without meaning. That man who boasted that he would win if he died with the most toys has found no inherent meaning. I did a funeral some time ago in New Orleans for a woman that was one of the most diffi­cult I have ever done, not because of dealing with a heavy emotion of loss, but because no one really cared very much. When I asked about the woman’s life, it seemed that no one could think of much to say. She didn’t think much or read much or work much. She liked playing bridge and going to Mardi Gras balls and parades and criti­cizing her sisters and nieces and nephews and husband and flirting with and ma­nipulating men, but other than that she didn’t seem to do much. She didn’t even give parties — just went to other people’s. It’s not that peo­ple disliked her, or had anything un­pleasant to say about her except for her tendency toward unkind re­marks, they just didn’t seem to feel that they would miss her very much at all. Her sister-in-law and nieces were doing what they should do, arranging her funeral, and that was that. The only thing that didn’t jibe for me, and that they could not explain, was that she had specifically asked for a Unitarian funeral. Given the rest of her qualities as described to me, the only thing I could imagine was that she had been to one once and liked it. She cer­tainly had never, so far as anyone knew, been inside a Unitarian Church. What can one say at a funeral about the meaning of this life? Not a whole lot. So far as I could learn, however, she had never questioned it. What is the meaning of a butterfly or a rose?

Most people, I believe, are not satis­fied with that. They want to feel that their lives do mean more than toys or material pleasures only to end in death. The cur­rent in­terest in spirituality, unless it really is no less of a fad than hula-hoops or body pierc­ing, is the effort to discover meaning. People look at their toys or their jobs or their relationships and think that there must be more to it than that. The quest for spiri­tuality, however, as it is usually articulated and practiced, is based on the assump­tion that life does have meaning if we can only discover it, that there is a transcen­dent dimension in­herent in us that we need to tap and then we will feel satisfied that life is more than getting and spending, living and dying. Viktor Frankl, how­ever, said, “It is not what we ask of life, but what life asks of us that is im­portant.” Even spirituality, as we look at it today, is an­other demand we are making of life. We are not creating meaning by responding to the demands of life but rather trying to discover a meaning that we assume is there, which however uplifted it makes us feel probably cannot ultimately save us.

If meaning truly is not inherent as the existentialists argue and as my examples seem to show, and if we need it to be and become more than wisps in the wind, then we must create it for our­selves. That is where the discussion usually ends. We must create our own meaning, we say, and everyone nods wisely, and we go off and do it, I sup­pose. Except that I’m not sure it’s that easy. What is it that we can create that makes life meaningful and how does it do it? If life is essentially meaningless and therefore absurd, can we just assign meaning to it? Can we say, “Collecting a full set of all the colors and brands of pantyhose in the world will give my life meaning?” Or can we say, as some are obviously saying, “Killing myself and all the innocents around me with a car bomb is a meaningful act if I manage to get attention and kill a villain or two?” Obviously there must be more to it than that. Although the creation of meaning is an act of individ­ual will and differs in time and place and person, it can’t simply be arbitrarily de­cided. For meaning to be created by what we do with our lives, we must respond, as Frankl said, to the de­mands of life, not through our own decision as to what we want them to be, but the real demands that it is making. To determine what those demands are and to live by them is the life of faith. It can be said in the most terrifying of traditional terms. The pur­pose of our existence can be said to be what traditionalists have always said it was: faithful living.

When I talk about faith many peo­ple think that I am redefining the term. My feeling is that rather than re­defining it, I am bringing it back to its most important meaning. Popularly it is used to mean belief without evidence. However, look at the word faithfulness. It has nothing to do with belief but every­thing to do with loyalty. When we speak of a religious faith, we often are not talk­ing about adherence to the minutiae of doctrine, the acceptance of certain be­liefs, but rather a loyalty to the ideals that it preaches. In fact, faith is not belief but loyalty and courage — loyalty to ultimate ideals and the courage to live by them whether or not they have objective being. I have used the image of a tunnel and the act of traveling toward the light at the end of it — a light that you can’t see. To be faithful you don’t have to believe that the light exists. You don’t even, if you have sufficient courage, have to hope that it exists. You go forward as if it exists, and that is faith. (The lights that encourage your travel along the way are grace, but that’s an­other sermon.)

If we create our own meaning, that would seem to imply that meaning can be arbi­trary. Ultimate values differ from person to person, and it is what we value in life that makes demands upon us. Commitment to transcendent values is the same thing as responding to life’s demands or living faithfully. If Muslim terrorists have as their ultimate value the destruction of Israel, how can I say that such terrorism is not a creation of meaning in the sense that I am using it, but rather an assignment of meaning? I have a constitutional and trained dislike of assertions based on intu­ited values. One of the earliest memories I have of advice given me by my parents was to remember that one person’s meat is an­other person’s poison. Nevertheless I do not believe that the clearest most com­fortable sense of faith in one’s ultimate values and the meaningfulness of one’s life can be accepted as true without question. That is to say that just as there are standards of objec­tive truth based on evidence, so must there be standards of transcendent and moral truth whereby we can understand the impor­tance and reality of life’s de­mands. Pragmatically such a mistaken sense of ultimate goals and commitment to evil ends may be useful to us in Viktor Frankl’s terms of enabling survival under dreadful suffering, but in terms of what we must become as human beings, it cannot be acceptable.

This, I suppose, is the leap of faith that I take, though I could wish to find some ob­jective reasons for my belief, that transcendent meaning is more than hu­man cre­ation, and that goodness can be discerned and can as easily be mistaken. Deciding what values we can commit ourselves to and therefore creating meaning for our lives cannot be simple individual preference. Human beings, of course, are past masters at justification, and we can probably find ways to justify any demand that we think we perceive as being one of the ultimate demands of life. We can describe it as justice, as honor, as any of the values that each of us holds however we may differ in our description of them. We can talk about the greatest good for the greatest number or about the greatness of the ends justifying the means, but I suspect that in its final anal­ysis the creation of meaning must depend on our intuition, on sharing our quest with others, on considering our biases, our hopes, our beliefs, and finally, after having given the subject all the consid­eration we can manage end at last with no final answer. Kant said that there are moral truths that we know a priori. The transcendentalists believed that the intu­ition was finally the only route by which we could discover the holy. Surely rea­son without faith will never succeed. We can, then, decide that with no better ground than that the search for meaning may as well be abandoned, or choose the delights of faith kept honest by honest examina­tion.

When we say, then, that we must create meaning for our lives, I do not be­lieve that we are making something out of nothing in the sense that we must in­vent or assign the idea of meaningfulness, although that implication was clear in the philosophy of the absurd. That may be why existential philosophy is no longer the focus of at­tention of contemporary thinkers even though its influence was so great and last­ing. The existentialists gave us the tunnel without telling us how to travel in it. There will be no point in the journey, no life of faith, without that creation of meaning, but it is like com­posing a symphony or writing a poem. We know what a symphony or a poem is, and therefore we know when we have created it. To have meaning in our lives we must create what we know is mean­ingful. The light to­ward which we travel, whether or not it is there, is ultimate meaning. It is the de­mands of life which we serve, and those demands are the transcendent values of truth, of love and justice, of beauty and goodness, of peace and joy. When we live in the ser­vice of these values we no longer ask ourselves the meaning of life or wonder whether it has any. When we transcend the toys and the material aims, not rejecting them or ne­glecting them, but seeing them in the light of those greater goals that we have faith in, we know that our lives have meaning. We have created that meaning ourselves in our service to what is good.